BWW Review: LeMoine's Miss Trunchbull Steals the Show in Expression City's MATILDA
Review: LeMoine's Miss Trunchbull Steals the Show in Expression City's MATILDA
Five-year-old Matilda Wormwood is a genius: one who uses her imagination to whisk her away from the woeful confines of a home life with repulsive, repugnant and irredeemably bad parents and a lazy and feckless brother. Using her brilliant mind - despite all her family's efforts to stifle her creativity (her father, for example, always call her "boy" or an increasingly insulting panoply of names) - Matilda creates stories to take her away from her horrid home life, which exists only in Roald Dahl's acclaimed book that makes her seem so real, so completely genuine to its countless readers, for whom she exists on paper, in the recollection of words read, or in hearts where she will forever continue to thrive as a meaningful and inspiring character, no matter how surreal the world created by Dahl seems to be.
Can there be a better way to capture Matilda's spirit so evocatively than in musical theater (the musical debuted on the West End in 2010 and made its subsequent New York transfer in 2013) - a journey through which her soulful, heartfelt ascent into a literary hierarchy (in which readers can live vicariously) be charted? Matilda's forays into her fictional world of devil-may-care adventure, oftentimes aided by her gift for telekinesis or her penchant for clever tricks (like switching her father's hair oil with her mother's peroxide is just one of her intriguingly contrived comeuppances) - which is at once darker than other offerings of similar ilk, yet somehow rather more confectionary than even the fluffiest of musical comedies that have come before or since - lend themselves exquisitely to Matilda the Musical, the stage version of the tale that makes an impact due to its somehow hopeful outlook, despite everything that exists to crush the spirit of its young protagonist.
Never once does Matilda seem undisciplined, duplicitous or miscreant; rather, she seems simply smarter and more fully formed than the rest of her classmates at Crunchem Hall School, devised by author Roald Dahl for the setting of his immensely popular 1988 children's novel.
Now onstage at Brentwood's Expression City, in a winning production under the direction of Bradley Moore (and choreographed and music directed by Curtis LeMoine, who makes a startling appearance as the arch disciplinarian Agatha Trunchbull, the former British hammer-throwing champ who runs the aforementioned Crunchem Hall School), Matilda the Musical is entertaining and delightful, to be sure, but it also inspires its audience to think about the impact of books on their own lives and the powers to be found in the imagination of one little girl, in particular, and of everyone who loves to read in order that they might be transported to a different world.
A more a sincere appreciation of the written word would be hard to find than in the entertainment conceived to be Matilda the Musical, which touches your heart and stirs your soul in unexpected ways. The stage musical features a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin that captures the rebellious spirit of Dahl's book to offer a tale that is moralistic without being preachy, somehow managing to be refreshingly free of didactic overreach.
Moore's direction keeps the show's pace steady (although on opening night, technical difficulties resulted in a half-hour later curtain than planned and too many words of welcome slowed things down even more so) and his eager cast of young actors (chosen from among those taking classes at the performing arts academy) and more seasoned stage veterans (including some of Nashville's best-loved actors) rise to the occasion to present a show that's delightfully askew, off-kilter and, well, different.
Dahl's book creates a fantastical setting for the play that somehow seems authentic and thoroughly believable. Matilda's tribute to the magic found in books (leavened with a bit of paranormal activity, for good measure) is mesmerizing and awe-inspiring and wonderfully weird characters are brought to life with a theatrical sleight of hand that is engaging, treating each character with equanimity and even respect.
Minchin's exuberant score will likely have you humming along, filled with a sense of enchantment, and is an amalgam of musical theater tropes, English music hall motifs, and inventive and contemporary themes and genres.
Moore's ensemble of actors is led by young Audrey Rowles as the titular Matilda and the indomitable LeMoine who brings the character of Miss Trunchbull to life. Rowles has a promising future ahead in theater (hey, kid: I'm directing The Secret Garden later this year; let's talk!). Rowles employs a not-too-shabby British accent to give her character more gravitas and she clearly knows her way around the stage.
No doubt, Rowles is inspired by LeMoine, whose performance over-the-top in all the best ways that term might suggest. In fact, the role seems created to allow LeMoine's use of everything found in his actor's bag of tricks to create a memorable character. He manages to stop the show cold when, during Act Two, Miss Trunchbull does a forward handspring into a bone-jarring split that's truly a sight to behold.
The other adult characters, save two - the sweetly benevolent Miss Honey, who strives to provide support, encouragement and an education to her young charges at Crunchem Hall (played by Abigail Nichol) and Mrs. Phelps, the librarian (Heather Hershow) who dotes on Matilda and encourages her to craft her stories - are child-hating malcontents made more palatable by their cartoonish demeanors and tacky, if decidedly wacky, costumes by Melanie Harness.
Nichols' Miss Honey and Hershow's Mrs. Phelps are the ideal counterparts to LeMoine's Miss Trunchbull, while Elizabeth Turner and John Mauldin provide tangible proof that not everyone should have children. Turner is outrageous as Matilda's ballroom-dancing harridan of a mum, while Mauldin's cold and distant dad is almost horrifying cruel. Their saving grace? The characters are crafted in such a way that you can't help but be bemused by their antics. Braden Wahl, as Matilda's mostly silent older brother Michael, personifies adolescent disengagement, but be sure to keep an eye on him: on opening night, he easily solved a Rubik's cube during a particularly compelling bit of onstage business.
Seth Bennett, easily one of the most promising young actors to be found in Nashville, is excellent as the overweight Michael, one of Matilda's classmates. David Gallagher delivers an impressive star turn in a variety of small roles, including the doctor who delivers Matilda to her totally vacuous and vapid mother, the protagonist of Matilda's continuing story delivered to Mrs. Phelps during visits to the library and a convincing turn as a Russian mobster.
Finally, the multi-talented Christian Redden is wildly theatrical in his performance of Rudolpho, Mrs. Wormwood's dance competition partner.
As the student body at Crunchem Hall, Moore makes grand use of Expression City's corps of budding triple threats, some of whom have notable stage presence, and remain wonderfully committed to bringing the show to life.
Granted, Matilda the Musical isn't everyone's cup of tea, but give yourself over to the show and you'll find yourself captivated by the experience. And, if you are like me - someone who grew up with the wonder found in books to take him away day-after-day from a humdrum, small-town life in which he was perceived to be an outsider - Matilda will take you on a journey full of hope and imagination.
Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical. Book by Dennis Kelly. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Bradley Moore. Choreography and musical direction by Curtis Lemoine. Presented by Expression City at Roy E. Barberi Theatre, 1724B Gen. George Patton Drive, Brentwood. Through March 31. For tickets and other information, go to www.expressioncity.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).